Finland: Mass workers’ strike wave continues against gov’t attacks on workers, unions, welfare

February 28, 2024
two workers at a protest
Members of the electrical trades union Sahkoliitto at a protest in the capital Helsinki. Photo: Sahkoliitto/Facebook

A coordinated string of political strikes brought Finland to a standstill from February 12‒16, when more than 130,000 workers took rolling strike action in response to an array of neoliberal reforms proposed by conservative prime minister Petteri Orpo’s National Coalition government.

These reforms intend to brutally wind back the country’s welfare system and severely restrict trade union activity.

Key sectors of the economy were shut down completely on February 12, as workers from transportation, healthcare, childcare and education walked off the job. The strike expanded to the industrial sector on February 14 when more than 60,000 members of the largest blue-collar union, Teollisuusliitto (Industrial Union), took strike action, joined by more than 7000 office workers, members of Ammattiliitto Pro (Trade Union Pro).

The strike spread to the energy sector on February 15, as members of Sähköliitto (Electrical Workers Union) downed tools at nuclear and hydroelectric power plants across the country.

The strike then spread to food distribution as members of Suomen Elintarviketyöläisten Liitto (Finnish Food Workers’ Union, SEL) took action across national food supply chains.

The February 12‒16 strike wave was the latest in an ongoing campaign of political and industrial action that began last year after the Orpo government announced in July it would implement neoliberal reforms to industrial relations and welfare.

The details of the government’s reform package were released in September. In response, Finland’s largest trade union confederation, Suomen Ammattiliittojen Keskusjärjestö (SAK), launched a national fight-back campaign. Protests also spread to university campuses, as disgruntled students walked out of classes and occupied Helsinki University on September 19.


The campaign is named #SeriousGrounds (#PainavaSyy) and is a play on the government’s proposal to change the law to allow employers to dismiss a worker on “relevant grounds” instead of the present test of “relevant and serious grounds”.

SAK announced on September 21 its plan to commence a campaign of industrial action against the reforms starting with three weeks of targeted political strike actions the following week.

SAK Vice President Katja Syvärinen told the media “This is a cry of alarm on behalf of the working population, expressing opposition to the Government’s programme of social welfare cuts and impaired conditions in the world of work.”

Workers across industries took part in one-hour work stoppages on October 3, and between October to February, the political strikes grew larger and more frequent.

Blue-collar union Teollisuusliitto staged a one-day protest walkout at 11 workplaces on November 21. Public transport workers took further strike action and shut down transportation across major cities, on December 14, and more than 100,000 workers took strike action across a wide range of industries from January 31 to February 2.

Walkouts by Finnair airline staff, leading to the cancellation of more than 500 flights on February 1‒2 had the biggest impact.

Social partnership and sectoral bargaining

This dispute is an ideological clash between working people and a neoliberal government determined to dismantle Finland’s Nordic model of industrial relations and social welfare.

The Finnish model, which places unions and collective bargaining at the heart of the system, emerged in the aftermath of WWII, when strong and militant trade unions were able to push lawmakers and employers to introduce major concessions to workers.

In Finland, industrial relations are based on social partnership and sectoral level collective bargaining that generally takes place between employer federations and trade unions.

Sectoral agreements cover a range of working conditions such as wage formation, working hours and leave provisions. Under the “social partnership”, employers, unions and government work together in a tripartite system based on mutual trust and cooperation, and where unions play a central role in labour market regulation.

Sectoral bargaining between union and employer organisations regulates the vast majority of employment conditions and legislative regulation takes a secondary role. For example, Finland does not have a statutory minimum wage, as minimum levels of pay are negotiated at a sectoral level.

Sectoral agreements act as an industry-wide floor and prevent an employer-led race to the bottom in pay and conditions seen in countries with predominantly enterprise-level bargaining.

Attacks on unions, welfare

The government’s controversial reform package has been likened to that enacted in Britain by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and are directly aimed at smashing the tripartite model of social partnership and industrial regulation.

There are more than 25 different proposals that give employers more power in the workplace, hamper union activity and wind back the welfare state.

Some of the key reforms include not paying workers for their first day of sick leave, unless their collective agreement states otherwise. The reforms also make it easier for bosses to sack employees, whereas currently workers can only be dismissed “on serious grounds”.

The reforms also include: Loosening of restrictions on temporary employment; increasing opportunities for employers to impose non-union enterprise level agreements on their staff; a shorter notice period for lay-offs; restrictions on the right to strike and ceilings on conciliated wage rises that are tied to the export sector.

The proposed reforms also hit students and unemployed workers, including reducing housing subsidies for students; enforcing stricter eligibility criteria for accessing unemployment benefits; and abolishing adult education benefits.

The reform package attempts to limit the right to strike and severely limits political strike action to only one day. The right to take sympathy strike action (known as secondary boycotts in Australia) will also be restricted and subject to a proportionality test.

The package also proposes harsh fines for individual workers and unions engaged in what is deemed to be unlawful strike action. An individual worker could be fined €200 and a union fined from €10,000‒€100,000.

Critical struggle

The government also proposes to introduce ceilings on conciliated wage rises that cannot exceed wages in the export sector, which are exposed to international competition. If this becomes law, the National Conciliator’s Office would be constrained by an effective wage cap applied to the entire economy.

More 88% of Finnish workers are covered by a collective agreement and the country enjoys some of the lowest levels of income inequality in the OECD.

Sectoral agreements are extended across industries and must be abided by at workplaces without union shop-stewards. Enterprise level bargaining can only occur on specific issues set aside for local negotiation by the applicable union and employer organisation.

Under the new government proposals, there will be increased opportunities for bargaining at an enterprise level without union involvement, which will weaken the union movement and leave workers weaker and atomised. Furthermore, the government proposes to permit company-level non-union agreement-making that will drag pay and conditions below those contained in sectoral agreements and statutory minimum standards.

Finland has avoided the negative social and economic outcomes that accompany neoliberal economic and social reforms, such as has occurred in the United States, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia. This is a critical struggle and needs our international solidarity.

[Clive Tillman is an Australian Services Union delegate, lawyer and PhD candidate in labour law at RMIT University.]

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